Posted by: robinson2000 | April 6, 2011

The Mad Miners of Potosi!

2nd – 5th April

After our exertions in the Pampas, we decided to take it easy and spent our last remaining day in Rurrenabaque by a pool, up in the hills overlooking the town. It was a tremendous place complete with table tennis table, trampoline and a beautiful sunset to round the day off. After the 39 hour bus ride out to Rurrenabaque, we had all chickened out of the return journey and booked a short flight for 50 pounds back to La Paz. The small plane took-off the following day from the tiny airport on the edge of town, filled with 20 nervous passengers, including several Israeli flyers who began frantically reading from their Torahs, leaving the rest of us particularly on edge. The flight was fine in the end, touching down a mere 30 minutes later in La Paz. We caught a taxi directly to the bus terminal and bought an onward ticket to Potosi for later that evening as we´d already spent enough time in La Paz. After whiling away the afternoon in an English run pub which served a top class tuna sandwich, we boarded the bus at 8.30pm and spent a chilly night curled up in our seat as we sped towards Potosi. Frustratingly, we arrived as 5am, to early and cold to wait for the morning to arrive, and to late to get a full nights sleep. We ended up catching a taxi to the Koala Den hostel and crashing out at 5.30am.

Potosi is the highest city of its size in the world at 3977 m and was at one time the largest city in the Americas due to its mining. It was discovered by the Spaniards and was the source of great wealth for the colony as they used the indigenous people to mine silver, zinc, tin and lead. Today Potosi is still predominantly a mining city which attracts many tourists who want to visit the fully operational mines. Unfortunately this is the only attraction that Potosi has to offer and as the precious metals begin to deteriorate, the city will be little more than a ghost town.

After sleeping off the bus ride from the previous night, we strolled through the quiet streets, where an old lady tried to sell me some knives by running the blade over my wrist as I walked past. She wasn´t the best sales women as she managed to draw blood, never the best sales pitch, and was freaking crazy at the same time. The rest of the day was spent lazing around the TV room in the hostel and eating an extravagant meal out, washed down with two glasses of Bolivian wine.

The next day we were up early for the main attraction of Potosi, the mine tour. The mines are still worked on by cooperatives and small groups of miners who bravely work under brutal conditions in the hunt for the bounty. We were geared up with overalls, boots, helmet and torch, and driven to the entrance of the mine, where we descended in to the bowels of the mountain. For the next couple of hours we were crouching and crawling around the hot mine shaft, breathing in dust, listening out for dynamite explosions and witnessing the appalling conditions that the men have to work in. Our guide for the morning was a hilarious Bolivian ex-miner who showed us round the miners market, where we bought drink, coca leaves, dynamite, alcohol (96%) and cigarettes for the miners. The guide was constantly ribbing us as he gave us a variety of nicknames such as the ass-munchers or the ladyboys, and was always insisting that someone had touched his ass in the mineshaft. The miners were a fascinating bunch of men who worked their socks off, drank like fish, smoked like chimneys (even down the mine with flammable gases), chewed coca leaves like candy and showed such disregard for their health. There was great camaraderie between the miners and they all had nicknames for each other such as “no-pubes”, which was my favourite. The average life expectancy is 55 for a miner as most die with respiratory problems stemming from the thick dust that hangs in the air or from caves inns as rival miners blast their way around the mountain, looking for the next vein of precious metals. The tour was excellent but most of us were thankful to be out in the fresh air as we emerged from the mine shaft and into the daylight.

We spent the afternoon feeling pretty grateful that we weren´t miners and watched Tottenham get squashed by Real Madrid. We then caught a short 3 hour bus to our next stop, Sucre.

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